By Dana Rubin (formerly of Nelson\Nygaard), Emily Roach (formerly of Nelson\Nygaard), Michael Consunji (Nelson\Nygaard), Sneh Salot (Nelson\Nygaard), and Kate Lefkowvitz (formerly of Alameda County Transportation Commission)
Printable PDF: Improving Access to School: A Guide to Implementing a Free Transit Pass Program
The cost of transportation is cited as a barrier to school attendance. To reconcile this issue, cities across the country are implementing free transit programs to alleviate households’ travel costs to and from school. In Minneapolis, for example, a transit program for high school students is helping to significantly decrease absences.
The Alameda County Transportation Commission (Alameda CTC) sought to implement its own program—the Student Transit Pass Program (STPP). Since its launch in 2016 as a pilot, STPP has grown to more than 15,000 student participants. This article is an overview of the program and recommendations to other agencies interested in implementing a student transit pass program.
Pilot Program History
Initial Development of the Pilot
Alameda County’s 2014 Transportation Expenditure Plan (TEP) earmarked $15 million to design and develop a three-year pilot that would test various program models before launching a more widespread effort.
Following funding approval, Alameda County Transportation Commission staff held monthly stakeholder meetings with community and technical advisory committees to help plan and design the pilot. Alameda CTC collected input from schools through the distribution of surveys at school sites to understand student demand for a transit pass program, and feedback from school staff contributed to key program design decisions.
Pilot development included creating a school selection framework and developing an evaluation framework to compare the effectiveness of various program models. In 2016, Alameda CTC partnered with three Bay Area transit operators—AC Transit, Union City Transit, and LAVTA/Wheels—and hired Nelson\Nygaard to assist with pilot development and implementation.
School selection was based on school type (middle school or high school), level of need, and geographic location to ensure access to the program at schools throughout the county. An initial list generated by the project team was narrowed down based on schools’ interest in participation. For the first year of the pilot, nine schools were involved across four school districts. By the third year of the pilot, 21 schools participated across seven districts.
In collaboration with the participating transit agencies, community stakeholders, and Alameda CTC, five goals were identified to help evaluate the success of the pilot:
- Reduce barriers to transportation access to and from schools
- Improve transportation options for middle and high school students in Alameda County
- Build support for transit in Alameda County
- Develop an effective pilot program
- Create a basis for a countywide student transit pass program (funding permitting)
Pilot Program Designs
Initially, the pilot implemented four program models. However, the Year 1 evaluation concluded that the pilot had too many moving parts, and a simplified approach would be more effective. The project team reduced the number of program models down to two the subsequent pilot year:
From Pilot to Program
In December 2018, because of the effective implementation and evaluation of the pilot, Alameda CTC approved continuation and phased expansion of a full-fledged program. The program launched in the 2019-2020 school year with 62 schools in 11 districts. By the 2023-2024 school year, the program is slated to expand to about 150 eligible middle and high schools in Alameda County.
The STPP continues to offer the program models identified during the pilot: free/universal and free/means based. Students receive an electronic Youth Clipper card loaded with a pass that allows them to take free and unlimited rides on their local transit routes, as well as a 50% discount on BART trips and youth discounts on other transit systems.
The project team designed the STPP to be a school-based program, wherein teachers and school administrators are on-the-ground champions, liaising between the project team and students. This approach provides students with a direct support, learning about STPP from trusted adults who can encourage participation and be point-people for questions.
Roles and Responsibilities
Today, STPP relies on support from several key partners.
By the Numbers
By April 2022, over 15,100 out of 38,500 eligible students signed up for STPP. Participation rates varied from 10 percent to 68 percent, depending on the school and school district. This variation across school districts is likely due to multiple factors, including differences in transit service coverage and quality, demographics, land use, and urban form throughout the county.
Program expansion requires significant staff resources to onboard new schools, including signing MOUs between school districts and transit agencies, educating school staff about the program, identifying and training site administrators at each school, and updating protocols and processes to reflect an expanded, ongoing program rather than a short-term pilot.
For the 2020-2021 school year, approximately $21,500 was spent on direct costs for program materials such as the online application platform, lanyards, translations of marketing materials, printing, and shipping expenses (direct costs do not include the cost of transit rides). A total of $359,000 was spent on labor expenses, including billed time for program implementation and evaluation by Alameda CTC staff and the consulting team, as well as compensation for transit agency staff on card production.
Meeting and Achieving Pilot and Program Goals
There is a strong sentiment that the pilot and the program met and continues to meet the outlined goals in the following ways:
Goal 1: Reduce barriers to transportation access to and from schools. Participation grew steadily between the first and final year of the pilot, and the current program shows the same pattern. The STPP is particularly popular among schools enrolled in the free/universal model, where attendance and truancy for participating students has improved.
Goal 2: Improve transportation options for Alameda County’s middle and high school students. The pass provides participating students an opportunity to travel to extra-curricular activities and jobs, easing household logistical and financial strains. Per student and school staff feedback, the pass provides a new sense of independence.
Goal 3: Build support for transit in Alameda County. Increased ridership generated by the STPP supports growth and stabilization of transit ridership levels in several areas across the county. The STPP team collaborated closely with the transit agencies to consider possible crowding issues and determine the appropriate level of service to schools.
Goal 4: Develop effective three-year pilot program. A pilot-to-program approach allowed the project team to be nimble. To launch the pilot quickly, the team made early tradeoffs in pilot design and roll-out. For example, the use of existing fare products allowed the team to evaluate which types of passes worked well before engaging in costly software development. Overall, the flexibility of a pilot—combined with the cooperation of the transit agency and school district partners—was critical to identifying best practices for the longer-term transit pass program that exists today.
Goal 5: Create a basis for a countywide student transit pass program. The level of interest and support that arose from the pilot and the pilot’s success in meeting the program goals created a basis for a countywide student transit pass program. Upfront meetings with school district representatives and principals; onboarding meetings with site administrators; and active communication between program administrators, transit agencies, and schools were critical to the pilot’s success.
The highlights of the STPP include both direct and indirect benefits of the pass. Along with improvements to school attendance and involvement in extra-curricular activities, the program relieves families and schools of some financial pressures. Families can reallocate income that would have otherwise gone to transportation. The pass also enables easier household logistics and coordination, reducing the need for working parents and guardians to organize school pick-up and drop-off. Additionally, schools and school districts can shift their resources to support other critical student services with limited budgets.
Considerations for Implementation
Upon reflection, we recommend the following approaches and administrative strategies when implementing similar programs.
- Identify champions to help administer and advocate for the program. The program is most effective when a dedicated staff person and an engaged principal or district-level advocate are available to students. In addition to administrative support, school staff provide a personal connection to students and families that reduces access barriers when compared with navigating a process affiliated with an agency outside the school.
- An iterative approach encourages continuous improvement. Throughout the pilot and ongoing program, the program team has remained nimble, responding to feedback from program participants, school staff, and transit agency partners. The program has also responded to external challenges and monitored federal, state, regional, and local policies that may impact the program. For example, in response to the fluctuating circumstances of the pandemic, the project team took swift action to develop an online application, reducing the need for in-person contact, and adjusted marketing approaches to build awareness about transit agency social distancing and cleaning protocols.
- Be open to alternative administrative approaches to reduce operational costs. While the partnerships mentioned above have been essential to the STPP, transit pass programs do not need to be affiliated with schools. It is helpful to have on-the-ground champions to encourage participation, but it should be noted that the school-affiliated approach slows down scalability and increases operational costs.If rapid scalability is important, it’s prudent to implement marketing and promotional tactics that do not require third-party partnerships, like schools or community organizations. Consider the longevity of the program and whether scalability needs to be prioritized over a program that focuses on customer service. Designing an expansion roadmap prior to the launch of a pilot or program will help you weigh these tradeoffs.
- Research and test back-end database tools and software to ensure the right tools are selected and to protect student privacy. A critical component of STPPs are the databases and tools that aid the project team’s management of the program. Online applications using a customizable front-end form and backend database improve the time it takes to verify applications and produce transit passes.The project team also uses an Access database to store student data and track the stages of card production. While the functionality of Access suits the team’s needs, it can be a cumbersome platform that requires knowledge of SQL coding language. Take the time to explore user-friendly databases that can be manipulated, edited, and managed by all teaming partners.
- Expand program eligibility by using different means-based metrics. About 38,500 students are eligible for the STPP. While this reaches a substantial number of people, more households within Alameda County could benefit from the program with a different eligibility threshold. A significant number of households that do not qualify for California’s FRPM ($34,880 annual income for a family of four) are also burdened by the high cost of transportation. In the Bay Area, according to the Bay Area Equity Index, very low-income families are defined as those with incomes that are less than 50 percent of the Area Medium Income. In Alameda County, that is $54,000 for a family of four.
Arguably, the most significant consideration for implementation is whether to expand the eligibility pool to make access to free transit available to more people. The best option is to remove means-based eligibility requirements and implement free programs across the board. However, if that is not possible due to fiscal and/or administrative constraints, consider local context and local metrics that are more inclusive than statewide or federal standards. If steps are not taken to make programs more inclusive, we haven’t done enough to make transportation more equitable.
The benefits of STPP, some quantifiable and some immeasurable, make a strong case for the value of youth transit programs and their far-reaching community impact, beyond simply offering a way of getting to and from school. If you are looking for information or guidance on how to implement a program in your area, please contact the STPP project team at [email protected].